We wandered down the streets of Kampot in Cambodia on our first morning there, it was a Tuesday and the town was off to a slow start, we were on the hunt for breakfast. We’d heard incredible food was in abundance in Kampot, so we were looking forward to sampling everything it had to offer. A sign for Sister’s II – All Day Breakfast Shop and Bakery and a cabinet packed full of homemade baked goods and we were immediately lured inside. A quick flick through the menu and we knew we had stumbled across a good one. Double chocolate-chocolate chip pancakes, scrambled eggs and two banana smoothies later and the place was already calling us back, the service and food were too good to ignore. A mid-afternoon return for a slice of their heavenly lemon meringue pie and ice-cream, and we got a lot more than just a delicious pastry.
As we sat there indulging ourselves, Pheakdey sat at another table, busily sorting out her books. My simple question of “How did you learn to cook like this?!”, got her chatting for an hour, and we learnt all about this amazing woman, her family, and her life.Pheakdey is Vietnamese born, however was abandoned at a young age, being raised by her grandfather. At the age of 12, her next door neighbour approached her and told her that she’d found her mother – she was in Cambodia and she could take her there to be reunited. Pheakdey was being worked extremely hard by her grandfather so jumped at the chance to escape her childhood in Vietnam, and go on the search for her mother who had left her all those years ago. Her arrival in Cambodia wasn’t what she had been promised – her next door neighbour had taken her in the hope of ‘selling’ her to make money off her, something that was common during the years following the Khmer Rouge. Pheakdey learnt of her fate and within 24-hours it was changed. She was in a motorcycle accident – she collided with a tuk tuk and her right leg was severely injured to the point that it needed to be amputated, deeming her useless to her neighbour, who immediately fled.
Pheakdey explains that most of the accident is a blur, but she remembers waking up in hospital to the news that they were unable to repair her leg. News that didn’t worry her – she tells us she had seen crabs leg grow back and didn’t know humans didn’t work the same way. It was 1993, and the UN had intervened to assist with recovery from the Khmer Rouge, they fitted Pheakdey with a prosthetic leg below the knee and she was moved to an orphanage run by Americans, without the ability to speak any Khmer or English. This is where Pheakdey learnt to bake, learnt two new languages and began her life. She agrees it was the best thing that ever happened to her.
At 19, Pheakdey left the orphanage she had grown up in, to work at another orphanage, Asia’s Hope, washing clothes and cleaning. A few years later, she met and married her husband, and moved to Kampot. They now have two children, Mary who’s 10 and their adopted son Moses, who came into their lives at just ten days old, and is now five. She’s making sure they learn English and Chinese in addition to their native language of Khmer, because she believes it’s important to their future.
Pheakdey’s husband is now the manager of Heritage House, a small orphanage in Kampot with 14 children, a number which has decreased only because children have become adults, and have left to get married or study or work in the capital, Phnom Penh. She speaks of it with pride in her eyes, she understands how lucky she was to have been saved by the UN at the age of 12 and tells us she just wants to help children that are in the same situation she was. Pheakdey explains to us that many parents dump their children out the front of the orphanage overnight, in the hope of getting them a solid education and a brighter future. She tells us her husband has to spend hours going around town, trying to decipher whether the children are true orphans. Pheakdey is devoted to only helping children that are true orphans like herself, as she knows she can’t help everyone, and she doesn’t want children to be separated from their parents.
Sister’s II was born in 2009. Pheakdey opened on a street that runs off the river but sits a few blocks back, and tells us everyone thought she was crazy – why wouldn’t she get a riverfront block?! Other than the fact that the riverfront properties were out of her price range, she had faith in her food and could see the potential in the area, and it doesn’t seem like it’s damaged her business at all. She still has a steady stream of customers, and definitely has a loyal customer base, even if it’s just for a few days while they’re visiting. She cooks everything she learnt from ‘the Americans’ while she was growing up in the orphanage – which is why the majority of her menu consists of Western food, often with a Vietnamese or Khmer twist. Pheakdey tell us of Sister’s I in Phnom Penh, run by one of the women she grew up with in the orphanage, who’s as close to her as a sister would be. A devoted Christian family, Sister’s II doesn’t open on Sundays, and although Pheakdey’s husband first told her that Christianity was a ‘white person’s religion’, he is now a Pastor, preaching every week at their church.
Pheakdey finishes our conversation with, “We’re small, not big, but happy.”. Her smile and spirit tell it all.